Is the new golden age of movies worth it?
I seem to have hit a winning streak with my movie choices lately. So much so, in fact, that I’m really starting to think in terms a new golden age in American filmmaking, or at least in films that are achieving wide release in American theatres. Yes, that might seem to run counter to my generalized diagnosis of mass entertainment culture’s death spiral into a dystopian dark age, which I have explored at length here at The Teeming Brain. But in fact I don’t think these two viewpoints are mutually exclusive. I am left with a bit of a philosophical dilemma, though, since I can’t decide whether these great movies are worth the gargantuan entertainment culture of excess that gives rise to them.
Movies that I have really loved lately– some in recent days, some in recent weeks and months — and that have really impressed me with their maturity, intelligence, artistic quality, and emotional depth include The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford, The Brave One, Munich, The Lookout, The Constant Gardener, Blood Diamond, 3:10 to Yuma, Babel, and Syriana. I’ve watched a couple of them more than once. And I can’t help sensing in their collective presence a kind of “hot streak,” a whiff of the creative momentum or running energy that indicates a real upsurge of excitement and artistic vision in the culture that’s giving rise to them. These movies are achieving wide theatre releases and easy access plus prominence in the DVD market. The same thing, minus the DVDs, happened in Hollywood in the 1970s, when a streak of genius-level movies found their way into America’s collective consciousness. Dare we let ourselves think that something comparable is happening today?
Anybody who pays attention to entertainment industry news is aware that there’s been increasing talk over the past few years of a new era of responsible and “important” filmmaking. The current issue of Time, for example, which sits beside me as I type these words, carries an article titled “Can a Film Change the World?” which the contents page describes by saying, “Hollywood wants to change the world — but can films make a difference?” Films like Babel and Syriana, with their global scope, multiple languages, multiple storylines, and nonlinear narrative approach are cited especially often in the current press as examples of this new “important” cinema. But these qualities aren’t the sine qua non of the recent streak of filmic fire. 3:10 to Yuma, for example, feels almost classical with its straightforward narrative approach and American old West setting. But it carries the same creative energy, intelligence, and sense of being “in the zone” that one finds in Babel etc. So what exactly is up? Not just “message” films but more conventional ones, too, seem to be on a hot streak.
Normally I would wax cynical about claims of an important new era in filmmaking, since I would find myself unable to divorce my thinking about these films, and also my experience of watching them, from my knowledge of the rancid culture of greed, excess, narcissism, and corruption that is the modern entertainment industry. But damned if the movies I’ve named, along with a few others, haven’t blown right through this attitudinal wall. I trust my own judgment here. I can aver without a whiff of self-importance that I am an uncommonly sensitive and informed watcher of movies. Both my academic training and, more importantly, my personal emotional/intellectual leanings have brought this about. And I’m convinced that something important is going on at the movies. When a film carries the power of, for example, The Assassination of Jesse James, which literally left me on the verge of tears at its emotionally devastating conclusion, then I know something’s really afoot. All art forms cycle through fallow and fertile periods. Presently we seem to be in the early or perhaps early middle stages of a particularly exciting example of the latter.
What all of this really leads me to ponder at length is the question of whether the films are worth the entertainment culture that gives rise to them. Does the artistic success of a movie like Jesse James or Syriana somehow “redeem” the fact that its very existence is predicated on the existence of the entertainment business with its excesses? Thinking about the matter in light of one of my favorite subjects, peak oil, does the artistic success of Syriana or any other movie somehow redeem the fact of the gargantuan energy investment that’s required for it to exist at all? Entertainment has always been a business and a culture as prone to corruption as politics. This goes back farther than the existence of Hollywood or the United States. But like everything else, entertainment operates today at a higher level of sprawl and consequence than it ever did before. The scope and stakes of every movie are so high, and the level of effort and coordination among filmmakers and businessmen so mind-bogglingly intense and complex, that it’s a miracle any movie gets made at all. This raises the question of whether it’s ultimately worth it, of whether there can be anything virtuous about devoting so much to the producing of entertainment on such a massive scale, regardless of the relative inherent worth of the final product.
Should we celebrate the artistic successes that arise out of modern cinema culture? Should we praise the George Clooneys, Alejandro Gonzalezes, Steven Soderberghs, Brad Pitts, and Jodie Fosters who manage the miracle of conjuring something worthwhile out of the steaming flux of the show business world? Or should we instead support the downsizing of the whole thing? Is there perhaps something inherently wrong with life in the movie industry being conducted at its current level, and with the American and other publics investing such enormous amounts of time, money, and attention in the whole thing? Can any movie, even one of the current crop of great ones, ultimately be worth what it takes to get it made?
In case you haven’t noticed, I’m glossing over a few distinctions that really ought to be drawn. In particular I’m equating movies with entertainment, which is to conflate a necessary distinction between entertainment (the attempt to arouse emotion) and art (the expression of emotion). Some movies may be pure entertainment and some art, while some are both. All have their place. But recognizing this distinction can be helpful in the issue I’m considering, because I’ve been talking as if all movies are intended as entertainment, and this just may not be true. The current crop of “important” films appear to be intended at least partly as a cinematic form of social activism. And that may cast a whole different light on the matter.
But for now I’m riding roughshod over it all because my thoughts are still unformed. One of the few things I’m certain of is the power and beauty I sense these recent films. So for a while, at least, I’ll just enjoy the rush and let the thoughts sort themselves out on their own schedule.